Coaches, fans and sports columnists applaud young athletes with a strong work ethic. We rightfully admire boys and girls who spend time working out and practicing the skills of their particular sport.

How often have we seen talented athletes seemingly waste their ability and/or potential by refusing to work hard? Or, how often have we seen athletes take shortcuts, i.e., steroids, to achieve stardom?

Of the many so-called positive examples we could cite, few can surpass the work ethic of Jackie Stiles. The former Claflin High School track and basketball star is already legendary.

From the time she was a child, Stiles spent hours and hours working to become the best athlete she could be. But maybe it’s a good thing that few athletes are driven to her extreme.

In case you didn’t know, Stiles recently underwent her 13th surgical procedure since she left Southwest Missouri State as the NCAA career scoring leader. She led Southwest Missouri State to the Final Four in St. Louis before moving on to the WNBA, where she was 2001 WNBA rookie of the year.

Nobody knows if Stiles, the workaholic athlete, will play competitive basketball again. In a recent Associated Press story, Stiles acknowledged that her body has been through a lot. As she puts it, “I need a whole new right side.”

She has had problems with her right shoulder, wrist, ankle and Achilles’ tendon. The most recent surgery was to deal with the pain she feels in her Achilles’ whenever she tries to push off on it for a jump shot.

Stiles has learned the hard way that hard work doesn’t result in an exemption from an injury-plagued career. And her response to pain is one that most of us would applaud. She chose to play through it.

Oddly, and perhaps a bit unfairly, her “old school” work ethic may have resulted in a premature end to her athletic career.

Stiles said, “Every day I got up thinking: I have to work harder to get better. I really destroyed my body, but at the same time, I got rewarded for my work ethic. I don’t regret it, because who’s to know what kind of player I’d have been without that?”

According to doctors, her injuries are mostly the result of overuse. One can’t help but wonder if her obsession for chasing excellence ultimately led to her downfall.

For Stiles, motivation was never an issue, and it still isn’t. “If I don’t at least try everything and feel like I’ve exhausted every option, I’ll always live in regret.”

Would her career have been different if her life had been more balanced? Perhaps, but who knows? She may never have attained the greatness that she reached if she’d done anything less. That’s a decision left to each individual.

Regardless of how her story ends, count Stiles among the athletes who strive relentlessly toward excellence. She may wonder what might have been if she had taken it easier on herself, but she’ll never have to ask what might have been if she had only worked harder.

* * *

The Kansas state basketball tournaments drew nearly 70,000 paying fans to the six state tournament sites this year. Guess which classes drew the most fans?

If you guessed Class 2A, you’re right. There were 13,882 tickets sold to the tournament in Manhattan. The Class 5A tournament in Topeka was a distant second with 13,041 paying customers.

Coming in third was class 3A with 12,080 paying fans, Class 4A was fourth with 11,056 fans, Class 1A next with 10,931 fans, and Class 6A, the large schools class, was last with 8,556 fans.

My hunch is that Class 6A is usually at the bottom in attendance because the large schools don’t have the same community/fan base of the smaller cities.

And even though Class 1A probably generates as much or more support in proportion to the size of all the cities, there just aren’t enough people in those small towns to generate big numbers.

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